McHenry County Board tables correction of precinct sizes
McHenry County Board members voted Tuesday to indefinitely table a resolution proposed by county clerk and recorder Joe Tirio that would have divided five of the county's largest voter precincts, effective spring 2021.
The proposal was brought to the county board for discussion during last Thursday's committee of the whole meeting, when Tirio said that, if he were a board member, he would not vote to support his proposal.
"If we change the precincts this year, we're going to have to do that again in a year or two," Tirio said in an interview with the Northwest Herald. "All this change is potentially confusing and not one bit beneficial to the taxpayer or the voter."
According to Illinois Election Code, 77% of McHenry County's more than 200 voter precincts currently are violating a statute mandating that precincts contain between 500 and 800 residents each. According to the same portion of Election Code, if it is noted that precincts have grown too large, the county clerk must propose divisions to the county board at its regular meeting every June.
Tirio's resolution proposes that just five of the county's voter precincts be divided to create 10 smaller precincts. However, some board members pointed out that the newly proposed precincts would also violate the law as they all still contain more than 800 voters.
On Tuesday evening, county board member for District 3, Kelli Wegener, said approving the currently proposed changes would only cause confusion among voters leading up to the November election and would not actually fix the problem with the county's precincts.
"From the comments that Mr. Tirio made, he was pretty ambivalent that we even pass these precinct changes," Wegener said. "So, in my opinion, if the clerk is not asking us to pass this resolution, I don't think we should."
Tirio said he believes the portion of the state's Election Code in question should be changed as it is outdated given the recent increase in the number of voters who choose to vote early or by mail.
"There has been a good deal of discussion amongst clerks and members of the Board of Elections and legislators about changing a number of the aspects of the election law," Tirio said. "It was written at a time when the only way for you to vote was on Election Day. ... So it really isn't reflective of what's going on today."
The county's voter precincts have been too large for quite some time now. County Board Chairman Jack Franks said Tirio has been aware of the problem since he took office two years ago and has done nothing to rectify it, proposing changes last summer that were similarly limited in scope and justifying his proposal with similar reasonings about the Election Code needing to be changed.
"We have a clerk who has demonstrated incompetence numerous times, starting with his first election," Franks said. ".. .A clerk who doesn't follow the laws that he thinks ought to be changed and that is a significant problem."
Regardless of potential future changes to Illinois Election Code, the majority of McHenry County's voter precincts remain in violation of the law as it stands today, Franks said. This means the county board could be sued by any voter residing within one of the county's oversized precincts through the state's Mandamus Act.
The threat of a lawsuit being filed against the county is relatively minor compared to the costs of completely overhauling the county's precincts, Tirio said. In his proposal to the county board, Tirio pointed out that many neighboring counties have reported the majority of their voter precincts as being oversized as well.
"The case law is pretty mandatory when it says that June is the time to talk about this stuff, but the rest of it is pretty directory and I think it has grown that way out of an appreciation for the fact that (the law) was written a long time ago," he said.
Tirio said he is open to proposing a more comprehensive plan to ensure that all of the county's voter precincts comply with this portion of Illinois Election Code, but wants to wait until next June after 2020 Census data can be considered. Wegener agreed with the benefits of waiting for a more complete proposal.
"The 2020 Census is happening now, which means that we could be changing various districts ranging all the way from precincts to townships to federal office boundaries," Wegener said. "So we might as well wait for those changes to be made until we make any additional changes."
With that, Wegener filed a motion to table the resolution indefinitely, which was seconded by District 6 County Board member Jim Kearns.
In a roll call vote on the motion to table the proposed precinct changes, 15 board members voted in favor and nine voted against. The motion to table the decision carried.
The board members who voted against the motion to table the proposed changes were: Mary McCann, Robert Nowak, Carolyn Schofield, Jeffrey Thorsen, Michael Vijuk, Paula Yensen, Yvonne Barnes, John Jung, Jr. and Thomas Wilbeck.
District 5 County Board member Paula Yensen said that Tirio's decision to propose only a select few changes this year seemed "suspcious."
"This plan seems reactive at best and even suspicious to those looking for legitimacy," Yensen said. "We should be making it easier to vote, not harder. We should be making our election results more trustworthy, not less."
Multiple members of the public who submitted commentary ahead of Tuesday's meeting shared Yensen's concerns. One such comment was submitted by the Democratic committeeperson for the Riley 1 voter precinct: Mary "Cathy" Johnson.
"With the lack of transparency in choosing which precincts needed to be split and the lack of transparency in the actual drawing of the lines, there are questions raised as to why and how it was done," Johnson wrote in her comment. "...As soon as a person sees a discrepancy like this, they start to wonder what is going on."
The Chair of the McHenry County Democratic Party, Kristina Zahorik, also submitted a public comment and took her accusations against Tirio a step further.
One of the proposed changes -- the division of the Grafton 4 voter precinct -- would aid Republican committeeperson Orville H. Brettman, whose campaign Tirio has supported in the past, Zahorik said.
"The election authorities should not be partisan, the election authorities should be transparent and fair," she said.
Zahorik's concerns of partisan dealings are not entirely unwarranted, Franks said.
"He, on his own testimony, said that 77% of the precincts are incorrect and he gave us five to change that happened to help a couple of his political buddies," he said.
Tirio maintained that Illinois Election Code requires him to propose some kind of changes in June of each year, which is why he chose five of the county's largest precincts to divide as a way to suggest some improvements before a more comprehensive plan can be put in place.
According to Tirio, recent discussions among county clerks and other election officials have indicated that Illinois election law could be changed to allow for larger precincts or to replace them with "vote centers" which some states have done as a way to begin transitioning to a predominately vote-by-mail system.
"Every polling place would be able to accept a vote from any voter and you could also trade in your vote-by-mail ballot at a polling place to vote in person if you so chose," he said.
Tirio said he had expected these changes to be brought to the floor this legislative session, but they were not and Franks said Tirio simply cannot go on acting with "blatant disregard for the law."
If Tirio does not introduce a comprehensive plan to bring all of the county's precincts into compliance with the law next June, Franks said he will look into hiring an outside agency like the Better Government Association to come in and redraw the precinct maps to ensure they are devoid of partisan influence.